book report: The American Patriot's Almanac Daily Readings on America

I'm a history fanatic. However, my readings of US history, especially in regards to its relations with native Americans, left my feelings of patriotism greatly diminished. We, as a country, have done so much wrong. Yet, The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America edited by Bill Bennett and John Cribb has fanned this smoking chaff into a small flame. The introduction fairly acknowledges that our country is faulty and compares two approaches to patriotism.

In the early nineteenth century, naval hero Stephen Decatur gave a famous toast: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong!" That almost hits the mark, but not quite. Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who served as a Union general in the Civil War and later as a U.S. senator, improved Decatur's toast: " Our country right or wrong - when right to be kept right, when wrong to be put right." (p.x)

The almanac focuses on what America has done right. One example that I enjoyed was the entry for May 18th.

On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, a case that challenged a Louisiana law segregating railroad-car passengers by race. The Court upheld the statute, establishing the policy of "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks and whites. John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner, was the only justice to dissent from the Plessy decision. In the following decades, civil rights advocates often quoted his forceful argument in their quest to end segregation:
In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved...
The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds...
We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of "equal" accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done. (p. 169)

This almanac is not only about white America. Their are quotes from Frederick Douglass, MLK Jr., and Sitting Bull. It's not only about male America. Betsy Ross, Amelia Earhardt, and Susan B. Anthony are only a few of the women quoted. It covers the time from the American Revolution to recent events. It seems that Lincoln gets frequent mentions. I read the entire Constitution in its pages. I have to admit, that although a brilliant political document, it was written by lawyers, and will cure anyone's insomnia. This is not a read-in-one-session book, although my oldest daughter, who loves books full of facts nearly accomplished that. It might be good to read to your children at a meal together and inform them of the history they will never hear in school. I don't think the schools are intentionally depriving children, but there is so much to cover and so little time, which is why I've become a fanatic of history. The stories are so much more compelling when told with all the background and abundant quotes. This almanac provides many useful tidbits about our history.

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